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November 17, 2003

A Politics that is Dumber Than Spam

When 95 percent of the nation can be ignored by the operatives who run presidential politics, there is something wrong. Yet realism in the press says this is the way it is. Will that continue to be so?

I remember the moment when presidential campaigns turned from just maddening and absurd to completely empty for me. It might have happened years before, but I am a believer in politics; that is, I think it’s important to retain some hope. So it took until the fall of 2000.

Bush and Gore were then fighting it out, not by opposing one another in any kind of argument, but by running virtually the same campaign, on the same issues, pandering to the same groups, advancing a rhetoric that sounded the same but for a few catch phrases: “compassionate conservative,” “the people, not the powerful.”

Everyone who knew the game knew how this sameness happened. It was a campaign by the numbers, for the numbers, about the numbers; and in the end it came down to numbers, which is basically all we really remember of 2000—the numbers and the fight in Florida about the numbers. To call the proceedings of that year “poll driven” would not do justice to the scale of their emptiness. Matthew Miller comes a little closer when he talks of a “game of inches,”’ where “both sides jockey and pander for the few extra votes that can turn elections.” What really got me, however, was how the game of inches bypassed almost the entirety of the country, including the City of New York, where I live.

What you get from a campaign by the numbers is the ads. That’s how the consultants, handlers, funders and candidates have agreed to play: your ads against my ads. The candidates themselves are often turned into ads, for that is what it means to stay mindlessly “on message”— you become a walking ad. But in New York we didn’t even get that. There were almost no ads on our television sets because New York State, according to the numbers, was solidly in the Gore column. Why waste any time on it?

Let us, if we can, enter the mind of a professional who thinks himself dedicated to politics, who may even see himself involved in public service, and who nonetheless has been led by his logic to believe that bypassing—just choosing not to address—the nation’s largest (and best known!) city is a good thing. A wise thing. Or, if not exactly a “good,” then at least a necessary move dictated by realities that do not lie— not a tragedy but an irony, part of the game we all play in this business. How does a person like that get to that point?

To win you have to move the numbers. To move the numbers you have to target movable voters. So the first thing you must do is forget about the non-voters. (And forget about converting them to voters: too expensive, and they’re so cynical!) That’s 50 percent of the country right there. They can leave the auditorium. (Losers.) Then you dismiss the states that are sold on Bush or sold on Gore. Gone are the people living in at least 33 of the 50 states, (those idiots) leaving no more than seventeen actually to think about. Here the press will help you out with its savvy references to “key battleground states,” which makes it sound reasonable to ignore all the others. (Those foolish states.)

Then within the “battleground” states, polling will identify the likely voters hopelessly sold on Bush or hopelessly sold on Gore, which is most people. (Pathetic creatures.) That leaves you with a handful of undecided voters, (the blessed) in the states that count. They are the electorate. Here the press comes to your aid again by fixing on undecided voters in “swing states” because it’s trying to be a savvy analyst and it knows how the operatives think.

After all, what other logic is there?

Well, I did some back of the envelope math: There are 17 states where the winner in 2000 won by 6 points or less. That is a very generous definition of a battleground state. (Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin are the states.) The population of those states in 2000 was about 98.2 million total, or 34 percent of the U.S. Total votes in those states amounted to 38.4 million, or 36 percent of all votes cast. If we take a generous estimate of 14 percent “undecided,” (the highest I could find in any national poll in fall 2000) then at most five percent of Americans actually mattered to the operatives who ran the campaign and 95 percent did not matter. And what do the lucky five percent get? Ads!

This is the system deemed logical by the national press, and thought to be inevitable by the insiders who run it. In 2000, it brought us journalism like the following, from the “Newshour” on PBS: “Betty Ann Bowser explores the psyche of undecided voters in the bellwether state of Ohio.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So you really are undecided?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot of voters say that, but we think they’re already leaning one way or another.
CASSANDRA MAPES: I’m truly undecided. I probably won’t know until I go in there and I pick my spot.

And of course that’s public television, which is supposed to be more serious. Do we need a new campaign narrative in 2004? Yes, we do, because you can’t get any emptier than that.

Via email, I receive about one Nigerian investment scam letter a day, and immediately delete it. I get one Joe Lieberman for President letter a day, and immediately delete that too. Whatever small inclination I might have had to consider voting for Joe, (he’s always Joe in the text) disappeared when I realized that his campaign intended to keep sending me daily “news” of Joe’s genius, courage, success, and all-but-certain victory— though I never asked for it, and I never respond.

Spam is usually explained as a consequence of the marginal cost of sending an email, which is close to zero. Thus, spammers can make money if only one person in 100,000 responds. But there are other factors. Spammers pay no cost for annoying the 99,999 who do not buy the toner cartridge. It is a dim intelligence indeed that assumes this is so in politics. Via e-mail, the Lieberman campaign lost me as a listener, and he now has zero chance to change my mind. That’s a cost. After all, I am Jewish, blessedly undecided, a registered Democrat in New York, which is a Super Tuesday primary state, so I fit his profile. And I doubt the campaign knows or cares whether these costs are greater than the gain from sending “Liebernotes” out en masse.

Spam is a stupid medium, knows it’s stupid, does not care that it’s stupid, and knows you hate it for its stupidity. Lieberman’s spam (telling me of the “Joe-Vember to Remember outreach program”) is stupid, but does not know any of these things. So there’s another cost: advertising your own cluelessness, which the Lieberman web site also does in most every detail. On top of that, spam is not supposed to be solving the spam problem in Congress, but Lieberman is. And on top of that, he thinks I don’t notice that by using only his first name as much as possible he plays down his Jewish last name—as if that would fool anybody. The big story on his website today: “Joe Unveils New Ad.” You can watch it, you can read about it, and you can send money to keep it on the air.

Do we need a new pattern in presidential politics? Yes we do, because this kind of politics is dumber than spam.

Here’s what Vaclav Havel said in 1992 in a speech called, “The End of the Modern Era.” Havel, of course, is the playwright and political opponent of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia who became president of his country in 1990.

Many of the traditional mechanisms of democracy created and developed and conserved in the modern era are so linked to the cult of objectivity and statistical average that they can annul human individuality. We can see this in political language, where cliche often squeezes out a personal tone. And when a personal tone does crop up, it is usually calculated, not an outburst of personal authenticity.

Sooner or later politics will be faced with the task of finding a new, postmodern face. A politician must become a person again, someone who trusts not only a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself. He must believe not only in sociological statistics, but also in real people. He must trust not only an objective interpretation of reality, but also his own soul; not only an adopted ideology, but also his own thoughts; not only the summary reports he receives each morning, but also his own feeling.

Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, must have read that speech. For Jed Bartlet, the president Sorkin imagined and that Martin Sheen brough to life, is everything Havel said we must have: the politician who became a person again. Of course, it’s just a TV show, so it only gets us half the way there.

It cannot be the case that 95 percent of the country must be ignored so that campaign rationality can prevail. (In fact, though every step in that system is rational, the final result is crazy.)

It cannot be the case that the “savvy” style of journalism, which accepts this system under the law of realism, is the only style possible or practical. (Indeed, I would bet that most journalists are sick of it by now.)

It cannot be the case that one-to-many man is destined to run campaigns forever. (And when the fall comes it will be swift and total, like the collapse of the system that threw Havel in jail.)

It cannot be the case that insulting the citizen’s intelligence (“Joe-vember to Remember”) is the smart way to go. (Once someone demonstrates that definitively, we will marvel at how long the premise held.)

Did you catch John Kerry last week, riding a motorcycle onto Jay Leno’s show in a black leather jacket? I’m sure his campaign would say otherwise, but I think he had no idea why he was there.

Andrew Cline of Rhetorica says he is torn. Fifty percent of him in harmony with the spirit of this post. The rest says: “Bucking the system, even one dumber than spam, is a sure route to loss of leadership—a form of political death. That’s dumb!”

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 17, 2003 10:40 AM